Saturday, November 28, 2009

An “accidental” encounter

I arrived to Miyazaki city late at night and my host met me near the station. She was a 33 year old psychiatrist originally from India and recently living in California. She received a grant to do research in Miyazaki International College and so she came to Japan to teach and research. It was an immense pleasure to stay with Prerna. She is an intellectual with strong opinions on subjects and I felt challenged to talk to her (which is a very good thing).

The weather has been on and off recently but we got lucky that weekend with bright sunshine and warm rays. And so we decided to visit Aoshima town which is popular for its shrine located on a beach. Little did I know that morning that Destiny, in its mysterious and wondrous ways, has already started to arrange a consequential meeting.

The shrine was a completely new encounter for me. I got quiet used to seeing shrines against the background of tall mountains, green forests and busy cities. But the pervasive red Tori looked extraordinary against the backdrop of vast blue sea.

Surfers next to the shrine

Naturally, Prerna and I wanted to take a picture of ourselves and so I asked a guy standing nearby whom I noticed a little while before. He persistently followed us at some distance. I figured he was a Japanese man interested in practicing his English with us (I encounter such people every so often). Since he did not pursued to start a conversation due to his shyness, I decided to take action.

Sumimasen (excuse me) I said to him wanting to ask to take a picture of Prera and me. Oh, I don’t speak Japanese he immediately replied in good English. And this is how I met Keyu.

Keyu is a 26 year old journalist from Beijing. He was in Miyazaki on a conference and since it finished earlier that morning he had two days to explore the area. Somewhat shy, the three of us asked questions and learned about each other. Keyu ended up spending the whole afternoon with us.

The following day Prerna had to go to the university and she gave me a few suggestions what to see while she’s out. Keyu didn’t know anything about the area so he asked to join me. I met with him at 10:30am at the main station and we set off on a two hour bus journey to Nichinan. Learning about each other, our lives, our worlds, travels, likes and dislikes, political and religious views, dreams and aspirations, and much more, we found ourselves bonding tightly with each passing second. Nichinan was beautiful: a magnificent Udo Shrine built in a cave on a cliff of the sea and Easter Island Moai replicas were a site to see. But even more so our friendship was growing. We laughed at each other jokes, told sad stories, spoke of our families and friends, took silly pictures, climbed forbidden forest paths, shared delicious lunch, taught each other our languages, found out the significant meanings of our names, slept on each other shoulders on the way back to Miyazaki, played taiko drums in arcade, ran around the city looking for ramen shops, made plans to meet again, drank beer and cocktails in sad anticipation of departure, held each other in tight embrace at the station late at night because we just couldn’t let go.

That day, I have met a wonderful person who has become a close friend within a few short hours.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


When I arrived on Kyushu Island, my American friend Wendy, same one who introduced me to Toby and Maiko from Hokkaido, told me I must not miss an opportunity to meet Victoria Yoshimura. Victoria is a British lady who married a Japanese Buddhist priest many years ago and became a priest herself. She and her husband run a beautiful temple which has been passed down 17 generations for over 400 years from son to son.


On the day of my arrival I met Victoria’s 3 adorable kids, a 13 year old boy, an 11 year old boy and a 9 year old girl. Now two younger go to an elementary school which has a policy that children must walk to school in order to build character. The path to school is over 3 km long and runs through the mountains. And so Victoria suggested that the next morning I wake up with the kids and walk to school with them. Why on earth would I do that, I aked. You’ll see, was her response. Out the door by 6:30am, Victoria, her kids, a few neighbor’s kids and I set off for school.

The Takachiho town is located in the mountains of Miyazaki prefecture. If I thought hilltops of the north were beautiful, I was terribly mistaken. When the morning mist of the mountains cleared, it revealed the most colorful foliage I have ever seen. From pale yellow and orange to deep red and purple, the sight took my breath away. Towns built in the deep valleys and in the mid-mountains, rivers running through mesmerizing gorges, temples bathing in clouds on mountaintops. I could hardly recall seeing anything so beautiful. The sun began its slow descend from top of the mountains but for the moment, their tips were immersed in its golden glow. Now I knew why Victoria persuaded me to wake up at 6am. Kids’ cheerful laughter, morning’s brilliant sunshine, dog’s distant bark, mountains’ peaceful slumber, every single moment was magical.

Several hours later, Victoria was to join the kids at school. She teaches English in Junior High School which is located in the same building with Elementary School. Luckily, she invited me to come along and I got a chance to sit in her classes and actually participate in the lessons. I was a bit nervous to stand in front of 20 kids and talk to them about my hitchhiking experiences. But the children were so fascinated, they had only admiration to share. In turn, I was cherishing every moment spent with them. Firmly imprinted in my mind are their curious faces when they first saw me standing in front of their classroom, their puzzled features when Victoria asked them questions in English, their concentrated looks when they wrote a test, and their excited expressions when they found out I would stay in school and eat lunch with them.

Victoria's oldest son Reo

Park in front of the school

The school was filled with buzz that day. Apparently, I couldn’t have come to Takachiho at a better time. That afternoon, Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra was coming to school to perform. I was told their regular tickets in Tokyo cost over $200 but they were on a promotional tour around the country and were coming to this small town at exactly the same day I was passing through!

When I was 7 years old, my mom enrolled me in a music school. I learned how to read music, play piano, sing in choir, and recite biographies of famous composers. Music has been a part of my life and me as a whole since before I remember. I truly believe that people cannot exist without music. Any form or genre of it. My whole being trembles at the sound of delicate strings of violins which are ever-present in classical music and my heart beats in rhythm with drums and electric guitar pulse of hard rock. I can go to the “Nutcracker Ballet” and weep the moment the “Waltz of Flowers” begins its beautiful medley and I can get in a car, turn the volume of “30 Seconds to Mars” so loud I would feel it more than hear. My world is always accompanied by music.

I haven’t been to a classical concert in a long while. And so when I heard that I was getting a chance to listen to Tokyo Philharmonic, I was beyond happiness. Teachers, kids (grades 1st through 9th), parents and other guests had gathered in the gym. There were only a few chairs for the elders, the rest of the crowd sat on the floor. Some people brought blankets, some blankets were provided by school. The kids sat in front of the orchestra, Victoria and I kneeled right behind them and the parents sat in the back. The concert was everything I expected and more. Nodding my head with the rhythm of familiar music I was filled with wonderful thoughts and total happiness. But I was soon to find out how small that happiness was in comparison to real “treasure.”

The concert lasted for a few hours. The conductor was quiet entertaining and in-between each piece he introduced members of the orchestra and their instruments in a playful manner. Some older people were seeing violins for the first time in their lives. Overall mood was very fulfilling. I felt the end nearing and was sad I would have to part with the orchestra and its amazing music. Finally the principal of the school stood in front of the orchestra and thanked them for coming to Takachiho to perform and in return the school had something prepared for them. All the students stood up. Soft music started to pour from the orchestra and then the kids started to sing. I felt my heart grow beyond the boundaries of my body . Their voices reached into the deepest part of my soul and gently embraced it with their wondrous magic. This was the best part of my day. In one sweep moment I forgot the magnificent sunrise over the mountains and the beautiful music of the orchestra. The children were standing in front of me and singing. At that moment, I was the happiest person alive.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I arrived to Saiki in the early afternoon. It was a small town located on the eastern coast of Kyushu. My host, Sarah, invited me to a potluck dinner she was having at her Kimekomi-Ningyo (The 280-year-old art of fabric-covered wooden Japanese dolls) sensei’s home. Yamada sensei invited another ALT (English teacher) with her boyfriend, a Honduran/Japanese couple and two 50some year old ladies who were also her students. We spent the evening eating home-made meal, talking about travels, listening to rain and watching her grand-daughter’s concert. Beppu Yutsuki is an 11 year old girl who lives in Boston and plays violin so professionally, she’s been invited to perfom in Carnegie Hall. Yamada sensei was so proud of her grand-daughter, she glowed every time she talked about her.
 The dolls that Yamada Sensei has made

Dolls in the process

 Yamada Sensei

I was supposed to leave the next day but the rain kept hard at it and so I decided to stay one more night. The Honduran girl, Alexa, and I clicked well and we met up the next day to explore the city. Fortunately, the rain turned into a mini-typhoon and we had to spend a lot of time inside. And so I got a chance to meet some wonderful people. First was a 55 year old couple who ran an Italian restaurant. We stopped by their place for 5 minutes but ended up spending 2 hours. Somehow our conversation about travels turned into a very deep and meaningful conversation about life. We shared our views about the world, wars, people’s journeys, dreams and achievements. We all were very touched by our revealed thoughts and feelings and felt sad when we had to part. They gave me a very precious gift, a bag of rice which they grow themselves in their small backyard.

In the evening, Alexa took me to her samba lesson class. The teacher was a Brazilian woman. Sandra has so much fire, passion and positivity, her class keeps growing bigger and bigger. She travels for hours to other cities just so she can give her students the joy of being in her company and learning this beautiful and energetic dance. Her life story is not a fairytale. She met a Japanese man many years ago, moved to Japan and gave birth to two girls. However the marriage didn’t work out and soon she was divorced, alone in a foreign country and with two children. She struggled through many hardships but they never swayed her from being happy about life and kept her optimistic in the face of adversity. And although I found the class to be quiet difficult, for a few hours that I spent in her presence, I felt more energized than after a full night’s rest. Her whole being beamed from the inside and her eyes radiated a brilliant glow which touched everyone in the class.

  I was very happy rain kept me in Saiki.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The town of onsens

I caught a ferry to Kyushu at sunrise the next morning. By noon I was in Beppu, the infamous town of onsens (hot springs). I was staying with a 27 year old Mexican-American woman who was receiving her Masters Degree in Asia Pacific University. Unfortunately, Colleen was in the middle of a very difficult semester and had several papers and presentations due so she couldn’t spend time with me. Luckily, a few days prior to arriving to Beppu, I came across a very interesting profile on couchsurfing and contacted the person, setting up time to meet. Bahti was a 23 year old young Uzbek man studying International Management at APU. He spoke Russian, Uzbek, English and Japanese! We decided to spend a day together to show me around town.

Beppu is considered Japan’s onsen capital due to the amount of hot springs, geysers and jikoku (hells). Here’s what a local brochure written by a Buddhist priest, Kon Toukou in winter of 1957, said about hells:

“Heaven, as depicted by Dante, John Milton and William Blake seems neither beautiful nor interesting to me. However, I find the visions of hell conjured by these artists to be tremendously interesting. The cruelty of beings is so vividly expressed in them that I almost feel that I would prefer to go to hell rather than heaven. In this day and age, however, the heavens and hells described by these great poets and writers no longer evoke yearning of fear amongst many people. However, if you visit Beppu you will be confronted by a vision of eight great hells appearing before you. And these are certainly terrifying hells. Hot water gushes forth from the ground, roaring and rumbling fiercely, as numerous enormous crocodiles jostle violently with each other. Though you cannot see deamons, it is clear that one false step, one slip, will bring you to a rapid destruction. When I consider that these hells must be hotter than the reported cauldrons of hell, all my longing for hell fades swiftly away. Human beings need to experience hell in this life at least once, to empty themselves of their superfluous accumulations, to reflect on their past conduct, and to contemplate the path ahead. For this important purpose, I highly recommend a visit to Beppu, to witness the many aspects of hell. Only those who have been through hell and lived to recount the experience, are worthy to be called real human beings”.

I couldn’t have said it better. Hells were a sight to see. Spewing steam from the underground, boiling water produced such force strong enough to pull one and a half of train cars. The temperature nearby was hot enough to produce most exotic flora and fauna. One hell was breeding crocodiles due to climate conditions, another produced healing masks from red clay. One hell emerged 1200 years ago after a volcanic explosion, another was the oldest natural jigoku in Japan. They were fascinating to watch.

Foot Onsen

 In the evening Bahti took me to an onsen in a hotel where he worked and we finished the evening sitting on a pier and talking about life and travels. 
Hotel Onsen

View of the city from the onsen

The following day I decided to visit a secret onsen tucked away on a mountain.

The bus dropped me off in a very remote area. Far away from town’s center, I was standing in front of a mountain. Following directions on the map, I pursued a narrow road up the mountain. The street was so steep, at moments I barely held my balance. By the time I got to the onsen, I was out of breath, my legs were aching and I was yearning for the healing bath. I didn’t wait long. The owner quickly showed me around the main house and gave me directions to the bath house. I walked up a narrow trail through the woods and soon stood in front of a small clearing. The onsen was situated between a mountain waterfall and a high cliff overlooking the whole city of Beppu. It looked magical. Milky blue water of the pool beckoned the weary with its tranquil calm. Beautiful clear waterfall pacified the stressed with its soft thud on the stones. Pine scent of the forest soothed the senses of the tired with its earthly essence. The perfect balance of nature brought the needed peace and relaxation. I soaked in the onsen until I felt my limbs, body and soul fully rejuvenated.
 Road to the onsen

Path through the woods



Feeling completely revived, I went back to the main house for lunch. Sitting on tatami in seiza and enjoying Japanese cuisine I watched the city far below. The onsen did its job, my mind was at ease. I had no thoughts of stress or worry. Taking long, deep and steady breaths, I closed my eyes. Shutting out the sight sense, I immediately felt the other four senses sharpen. Hashi’s (chopsticks) smooth wood felt a bit rougher now; I felt tiny ridges and loose strings of timber. Soup emerged a new smell of miso, sweet potato and a hint of soy sauce. Minor buzz of fans in the kitchen and faint chatter of cooks surfaced in the background. Miso flavor tasted slightly more salty on my lips allowing me to appreciate its distinct savor.

I remembered a special restaurant in New York which held “Dark Dinning” events once a month. The guests wore black masks before entering the restaurant and the whole dinner course was served in complete dark. It was amazing to find out how a simple soup changed its taste when the sight sense was not helping the mind to recognize it.


In the evening, I received a call from Bahti inviting me to go to Beppu Park for a special festival. Over 450 volunteers have transformed an ordinary park into an enchanted fairytale. 20,000 bamboo and paper candles adorned the narrow paths of the park. Beautiful paper tents were dimly lit by colorful projectors. Fire torches lined the main entrance. Tiny lanterns, hanging in mid air, ornamented bamboo forest. Every path revealed a wondrous beauty of light. The paper for the candles was made and decorated by kindergarten and pre-school kids and they walked around looking for their masterpieces.

Young couples walked around holding hands; kids ran around in circles around parents; love, happiness and joy seemed to infect everyone. Including me. After the most extraordinary onsen, the festival was a perfect finish to an incredible day.